Bolton: Columbia’s Bull Street project needs public on its side

Associate EditorJuly 3, 2013 

Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

WHY IS Columbia City Council trying to turn a willing public against the redevelopment of the Mental Health property on Bull Street?

There’s virtually universal agreement across the city that the site should be redeveloped and the city should play a role in it, which would mean infusing public dollars — although the amount is debatable — to help provide infrastructure for a project that could transform the local economy.

You don’t get that kind of consensus often, so when you do, it only makes sense to embrace it and use it to your advantage. But you must protect and preserve that support through an open, transparent process that educates citizens on what will be required of them and the city — and the developer.

It’s critical for City Council to take care not only to help people understand the details of a proposed agreement to guide the development of the site, but also to allow for public input. This agreement is still new to city residents, many of whom have legitimate questions that need to be answered and even some suggestions that need to be explored.

Yet a slim majority on the council, led by Mayor Steve Benjamin, seems determined to muscle the proposed agreement with Greenville developer Bob Hughes through as quickly as possible despite reasonable requests to slow down so that details can be properly vetted and debated.

Folks have rightly pointed out that the journey toward getting this property developed has been a 10-year process and that it won’t hurt to take a few more weeks to work through the agreement and be sure the city’s and taxpayers’ interests, as well as those of the developer, are protected. Simply put, this community needs to have sufficient discourse about the deal that’s on the table.

With Mr. Hughes being the only developer to take interest in developing this entire piece of property, it’s not like the Department of Mental Health is going to withdraw its offer to sell. We have time.

Mr. Benjamin and others on the council mean well, but they’re wrong to push this through at such break-neck speed. They gave initial approval Monday by a slim 4-3 margin and plan a second public hearing and final vote on Tuesday, although the agreement was introduced to the public scantly a week ago.

The mayor has said this is too big and important a deal to delay as the city has in so many instances in the past. He’s right. This is a huge deal, one that economist Harry Miley says could have an economic impact of $1.2 billion annually, bring in millions of dollars in new property taxes and create thousands of new jobs.

But the fact that this could be such a game-changer is the very reason to take time to make sure it is done right. No one wants to delay this plan needlessly or indefinitely.

What must not happen is for city leaders to rush this project without proper care. Quite frankly, the manner in which this development agreement is being jammed through comes across as more than just hasty; there is an air of arrogance attached to it: “We know what’s good for you. Just shut up, take your medicine — and like it.”

How else do you explain Mayor Benjamin saying that while the city would have public hearings, the agreement is set and won’t likely change unless there is “something incredibly insightful.” You’d think the mayor, who constantly (and rightly) talks about the many bright minds in this city, would expect citizens to bring new insight to the table to improve this agreement.

And what about Mr. Hughes’ assertion that he won’t discuss details of his development — and there are far too few available — until after the city approves the agreement? So, city taxpayers and citizens are expected to promise tens of millions of dollars to help this project succeed with little knowledge of what they’re supporting?

Columbia’s mad rush to approve this development agreement reminds me of the way Cayce City Council hurriedly annexed thousands of acres of flood-prone property along the Congaree River in Richland County in 2007; that too occurred without sufficient public airing. In that case, Cayce initially approved the annexation days before Christmas and gave final approval days after. Columbia gave initial approval to the development agreement on Monday, three days before the July 4 holiday, and anticipates giving it final approval just as the long holiday weekend is winding down.

Coincidentally, the Cayce rush job was in response to a request from a group headed by Greenville’s Bob Hughes — does that name sound familiar? — which was attempting to resurrect what was once known as Green Diamond.

The question for Cayce in 2007 is the same one Columbia is facing now: Why the rush?

Look, Bull Street needs to happen, and the city has to have a significant hand in it.

But when it comes to governance, it’s not simply about what our elected leaders do (although that’s extremely important); it’s also how they do it. The fact is that elected officials can take well-meaning action and even do the right thing, but do it in the wrong way. And when you do that, as City Council is poised to do here, you stand a great chance of turning the public against the very issue or project being sought for its good. The details of the project become secondary as disdain for the city’s refusal to listen to or include the public takes center stage.

If City Council forces this matter through, it could create unnecessary upheaval and invite intensified scrutiny and long-term skepticism that this project doesn’t need.

Fortunately, there are some voices of reason on the council — Tameika Isaac Devine, Moe Baddourah and Leona Plaugh — calling for the seven-member body to slow down, although they went unheeded on Monday. Councilwoman Devine said the concerns she heard suggested the council should go back to the negotiating table.

If slowing things down for a couple of weeks is going to harm this deal, then there’s something wrong. It can’t be that fragile. If it is, what will happen when a real crisis arises, which could happen easily with a project of this size? Frankly, it seems the developer would want to have widespread community support so that when that crisis arises, he knows he’s got the public behind him to help him get through it.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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